By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Clayton County sheriff-elect Victor Hill appears to have blocked an attempted coup by a write-in candidate, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.
However, doubts remain if he will assume the office Jan. 1.
Clayton County sheriff's Chief Deputy Garland Watkins qualified as a write-in candidate in September after Hill defeated incumbent Sheriff Kem Kimbrough in an August runoff. At midnight Tuesday, with 53 of 60 precincts counted, Watkins earned a respectable 13,346 votes or 17 percent of 76,199 votes cast. Hill had 60,929 or 76 percent.
Hill, 47, is under a 32-count felony indictment stemming from crimes he allegedly committed while serving as the county's first black sheriff from 2005 to 2008.
With 53 of 60 precincts accounted for at midnight, voter turnout was at 50 percent.
Hill's victory as an elected sheriff under felony indictment is also a first for Clayton County. While it is difficult to pinpoint why voters chose the embattled Hill over a candidate without baggage, Clayton County's Democratic Party Chairman Albert Barker offered an explanation.
"When Victor was sheriff before, people felt protected," said Barker Tuesday night. "If something was going wrong in the county, there was always a car there from the sheriff's office."
Although facing an uncertain future, Hill garnered more than 75 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. Watkins declined to comment.
Hill's trial was set for Nov. 26 but that has been delayed by up to a year by the filing of an appeal by the state. Last month, trial Judge Albert Collier dismissed five counts, all of which concerned alleged misuse of campaign funds.
Special prosecutor Layla Zon of Alcovy Circuit appealed the dismissal and Hill's four defense attorneys objected. Collier ruled late Friday the state could continue with the appeal. It could take the higher court up to a year to decide on the appeal, delaying the start of the trial.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to block Hill's ascension to office by appointing an interim sheriff. Hill's law enforcement certification was suspended by Peace Officers Training and Standards Council until his criminal case is resolved. Under Georgia law, an elected sheriff has six months in which to gain valid certification or he becomes ineligible to hold office.
POST officials won't restore Hill's eligibility if he is convicted of a felony. As a convicted felon, he is ineligible to hold office.
Staff writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this article.